Why "Fences" Deserves More Recognition
On April 26, 2010, Fences, a play written by August Wilson, opened on Broadway starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Russel Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson. Then, on December 25, 2016, Fences, a film written by August Wilson hit theaters starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Russel Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson.
Upon viewing Fences, it can be difficult to remember you are watching a movie and not seeing a play. The film is a very straightforward adaptation, so the writing went largely unedited. As a result, there are many lengthy scenes that all take place on the same set. Moreover, shots are somewhat stagnant, as much of the dialogue is delivered in the monologue form. Indeed, Fences probably would have won the Oscar for the ‘Most Boring Film’ if not for the outstanding performances by the entire cast. As mentioned earlier, nearly all the leads have played their parts before on Broadway, so they know these characters inside and out, and their passion is what elevates this movie to become one of this year’s best..
Fences takes place in Pittsburg during the 1950s, following Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an African American husband and father who lovesmaking baseball metaphors. At first, Troy seems like a good family man. He can be a bit hard on his kids, but he does not want them to grow up having things handed to them. However, as the film progresses, we see that Troy’s strict ideals stem less from the love for his family and more from bitterness at his past and the world around him. He loathed his father and never got to follow his dreams of becoming a professional ball player because of the color of his skin. Consequentially, he tries to prevent his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), from going down the same path, not accepting that times have changed. Troy selfishly believes that if he could not do it, nobody should, and his refusal to let Cory play football winds up spawning that same hatred in his son.
Cory is not the only one who Troy comes into conflict with. Rose (Viola Davis) is Troy’s wife and, at first, they seemperfect together. Troy insists she is the one good thing that happened to him, but his words lose their meaning when it is revealed he has gotten a younger woman pregnant. Viola Davis dominates every scene she is in, but the one that made her performance truly Oscar-worthy was when she yelled at Troy after learning about the affair, uncontrollably sobbing and furious at his betrayal.
I would be remiss if I did not also comment on Denzel Washington’s astounding performance, both onscreen and off. As the star of the film and the play before it, Denzel clearly knows the character of Troy Maxson better than anyone. His lines are practically second nature to him. Depending on the scene, he can seem to be stage-acting instead of film-acting, but the change in style matches this piece very well. As mentioned earlier, Fences seems more like a play than a movie at times, but Denzel knows when to tone it down for a quieter, artsier shot. The result is an excellent blend of cinema and theater, which I greatly enjoyed, but some audiences may find off-putting if they are expecting a more traditional movie.
Davis and Denzel are getting most of the critical attention, and rightfully so, but I believe Mykelti Williamson also deserves recognition. Williamson plays Gabriel, Troy’s brother who suffered permanent brain damage during World War II. His performance tugged at the heartstrings of every audience member and, in my opinion, should have gotten him an Oscar nomination.
Arguably the most crucial theme in Fences is the conflict between fathers and their families, especially their sons. Troy’s resentment seems to stem largely from his dismal relationship with his father, whichaffects how he raises Cory. As a result, his relationship with Cory parallels his relationship with his father, right up to the point of physical violence — hate breeds more hate.
Overall, Fences is a stunning portrait of a black family on the verge of the Civil Rights Movement that shows how letting go of the past is sometimes essential for a better future.
Final Score: 8/10